The boy can’t have been more than 10 years old. Shaved head, piercing brown eyes and goofy teeth.
Our moment with him was fleeting but chilling and deeply sad.
In Arabic, he first quoted a verse from the Koran: “God says, ‘Turn to Allah with sincere repentance in the hope that your Lord will remove you from your ills’.” )
He was asking us to repent our sins.
And then, calmly, he said: “We’re going to kill you by slaughtering you. We will slaughter you. “
As he finished, he looked straight into the lens of our camera.
I have watched the footage back now over and over. Does he know what he is saying? Does he believe it? Has he seen others being slaughtered? How do you heal a young mind so damaged?
Around him, were dozens of other little boys and girls; all ages, all nationalities, filthy and playing in the dust.
And with them, the only guides they have in their lives; the black-clad women of the Islamic State.
On the plains of northeast Syria, al Hol is a place that should trouble governments around the world.
Behind a single fence are the people who will rebuild their cult if they can.
Guarded by a small contingent of Kurdish men and women, who do their best , this vast camp is a holding center for the women and the children who emerged from the IS “caliphate” when it fell in March.
The adult male IS members who survived are all in several prisons, also not adequately secure, not far away.
Al Hol was supposed to be temporary and yet it endures. It is squalid and insecure and there is literally no plan for what to do with the 70, 000 people who are here.
To go in, we ‘ re told to take all precautions. We will not be welcome. We wear body armor and the camp guards with us carry guns.
Stabbings are regular and there have been several murders.
The camp’s southern quarter, the annex as it’s known, is where the foreigners are held; those who are not Syrian or Iraqi.
“Ten thousand in here,” the guard tells me. “About that.”
They don’t know for sure because no accurate lists exist.
The makeshift market area is the only place staff are comfortable taking us in this part of the camp.
It is a chance for a few snatched conversations.
“Can we talk to you?” I ask one woman behind her niqab.
“No,” she replies. Her Australian twang is instantly clear. “I really don’t want to talk to you. Sorry.”
Near her, I spot a little boy with blond hair. It’s uncomfortable to approach and talk to a young child with a camera. But it’s important to gather what testimony we can, however brief, from this awful place.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Yousef” he says.
“And where are you from?” I ask.
“Finlandi” he says – Finland.
He told me he was six years old but then a woman ushered him away. Perhaps his mother. Perhaps not.
We met children from Russia, Bosnia, France, China, Uzbekistan.
Al Hol is a deeply unsettling place . Radicalized mothers are with children who’ve seen no other life.
Waves are met with nothing. Those natural instincts of a child – they are not here.
Clad head-to-toe in their black niqabs, the IS wives claim to represent the purest form of Islam.
But the so-called Islamic State they joined was the opposite. A warped evil cult whose crimes and terror attacks, globally, are unrivalled.
“Do you still believe in the ideology of Daesh?” I ask another woman.
“Yes of course. Why [should] we change? They treat us just like animals. Just like dogs,” she says, referring to her surroundings in the camp.
“You treated others like animals. You cut people heads off, you burnt people alive. Is this not true?” I reply.
“It’s says it in the Koran,” she tells me.
They are angry and yet emboldened by the news of the death of IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi last month.
“We believed in him so we came [to the caliphate],” a woman who says she’s from Paris tells me .
“And here we are. Anyway he is dead. You know in Islam there is life after death. Another one will return.”
“Do you think the Islamic State will come back?” I asked her.
Children walk past – quite a few are on crutches. Here, the war wounded are not even teenagers.
“Did you see the barbaric acts that were being carried out?”
“Yes – I saw barbaric acts.”
“A bit of everything. What you saw on the TV. We saw it in real life. Beheadings. Yes. A bit of everything.”
Because of the full-body niqab they wear, it’s impossible to read the faces of any of the women.
Was she ashamed to say this or proud? I don’t know.
There is no school. Aid agencies struggle to operate because of the security. Healthcare is at its most basic.
The camp authorities say further radicalization is taking place all the time.
Part of the camp was an existing refugee camp where people fleeing the IS caliphate fled to.
Now, those people share the same camp with the IS women.
The place is the perfect incubator for the reformation of IS. Essentially the camp already represents a new mini caliphate.
We did find one woman who appeared regret her decision to join IS.
Sonia Khadira, from Italy, told us she came to Syria when she was just 17.
“Do you understand why the Italian government would think you were a danger?”
“Yes I know. I know. Because I come in Daesh. I stay in Daesh for three years.” “So you don’t believe in the ideology of Daesh anymore?” I inquired.
It didn’t sound very convincing. There must surely be some, perhaps lots, who are desperate and genuinely repentant. But who’s to know?
How many are victims? How many are perpetrators? The point is that in here, no one is making the judgement.
With a few exceptions – Sweden, Finland, The Netherlands among them – countries are unwilling to bring their citizens home.
Prosecutions in their home countries would be complicated and many governments see such a return policy as politically toxic.
The return of children is very complex because their radicalized mothers won’t give them up. The UK has stripped some UK citizens who joined IS of their nationality.
As we left the camp I approached one more woman.
) “Where are you from?”
“Dawlat al Islam, the Islamic State,” she replied.
“Yeah, but where were you from before? “
” I am from the Islamic State! “
I then asked about the IS leader, al Baghdadi. What did she think about his death?
“The Islamic State is remaining! The Islamic State is remaining!” She screamed.